The chamber opera I.th.Ak.A by Australian composer Samuel Penderbayne world premiered last April in Hamburg at the opera stabile—the experimental stage of the Staatsoper Hamburg—directed by Paul-Georg Dittrich. The opera is a “re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey in the digital realm” with a purpose-written text by Helmut Krausser.
The set and costumes are designed by the Berlin-based set designers team Joki Tewes and Jana Findeklee.
The set shows the interior of a sunken ship. It was built as a spatial installation in the Opera Stabile. Both the audience and the orchestra are placed on the stage.
Space is structured by steel beams and surrounded by string curtains on three sides, onto which videos are projected. The orchestra sits beneath the commanding bridge of the ship on the one side.
The central character of the opera is Juli (pronounces as Uly in Ulysses), who is imprisoned in a detention facility and plans a break–out to a promising place called Ithaka. She is connected to cyberspace, in which she tries to find collaborators.
In the concept, the other figures like Circe and the Cyclops are avatars of Juli. “It is an odyssey to Juli’s inner self,” says Findeklee. “That is why there is no possible way out of the story, which remains in a loop. In the end, it is said, that the human experiment on her has failed again.”
The dystopic character of the music and story is found in the stage and costumes.
Although there are highly technical elements included, like the interactive video designed by Sebastian Pircher and Roman Kuskowski, the stage has a very transitory look. The string curtains, on which the cyberspace and sea of data materialize, appear like waving algae around a sunken ship. The steel beams on which the singers perform and the audience is sitting are of a rusty color and surface. “The idea was to state a prospect to a highly digitalized but sunken civilization,” says Findeklee.
“Juli finds her avatars as digital traces on the screens and on herself. The costumes were made out of white neoprene. Body projection is very significant in this performance because it shows the entity of the characters,” Findeklee says. “Of course, they appear on stage, as well.”
“Significant in its musical character is the dark net, that Juli reaches on a certain level. It is a free but also dangerous territory, a mystical sea on which Juli, like Ulysses, travels. Although the characters Juli meets represent how vivid and fulfilling the world can be, Juli’s motif is determined by her torn and deranged soul. The music states all this with an experimental, ‘avant-garde’ and entertaining drive.”
The focus of the visual storytelling was very much put on the costumes. “Because the actors have to perform in between the audience,” says Findeklee, “the use of props is highly limited due to security reasons. The costumes open up visual associations of the characters’ background. Dark, who emerges from the dark net, appears as an anonymous evil harlequin who tries to seduce Juli. The physical limitation given by the costumes determines the way the singers act.”
This physical action stands in contradiction to the digital look of the video images but tells about the relationship between human and data. This aspect was very important to director Paul-Georg Dittrich and the scenographers Joki Tewes and Jana Findeklee.